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- The Interdependence of Literature - 5/15 -
lives in the traditions of all the nations of the North. These poems, although fragmentary, still far surpass the Nibelungen-lied, and in their powerful pathos and tragic passion they surpass any ancient poetry except that of Greece.
The Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, traveled over every part of the West, and penetrated into hitherto unexplored seas, collecting in every quarter the facts and fancies of the age. In the character of wandering Normans they exerted a strong influence in shaping poetry, and in developing the Crusades. They brought back with them to their Northern homes the Christian and chivalrous poems of the South. In many of these the likeness to the Icelanders own Northern Sagas was remarkable, suggesting some still more remote age when one heroic conception must have dominated all peoples.
After bringing home these poems of Southern Europe, the Scandinavians proceeded to adapt them to their own use, giving them a new force and beauty. The marvellous in Southern poetry became with them something fraught with deeper meaning; and the Northern version of the Nibelungen-lied acquired an ascendency in its strength and poetical beauty, over the German heroic. Hence, during the Middle Ages, the Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, came to possess a peculiar chivalrous poetry of their own. It was, however, destined to share the same fate as the great poems of the rest of Europe; first to be reduced to prose romance, and then broken up into ballads. The chief cause of this breaking up of the old order of poetry was due to the Reformation. The national poetry was left to be carried on by the common people alone, and of course in their hands was corrupted and mutilated. Scott speaks of this in his Lay of the Last Minstrel, where he describes the old bard, who
" 'Tuned to please a peasant's ear The harp a King had loved to hear."
These Bards, or Scalds, meaning Smoothers of Language, were welcome guests in the early ages, at the Courts of Kings and Princes. Up to the twelfth century, when the Monks and the art of writing, put an end to their profession, these poets continued to come from Iceland and travel all over the world. In return for their songs they received rings and jewels of more or less value; but never money. We have a list of 230 Scalds who made a name for themselves from the time of Dagnar Lodbrok to that of Vladimir II, or from the end of the eighth to the beginning of the thirteenth century. When Christianity entered Scandinavia the spirit of the old tradition still remained with the people, and became their literature under the name of "Folk Sagas," or as we would call them, fairy tales. These legends are found not only in modern Scandinavia, but they have made their way into all the literature of Europe. Jack the Giant Killer, Cinderella, Blue Beard, the Little Old Woman Cut Shorter, and the Giant who smelled the blood of an Englishman (the Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum of our nursery days), were all heroes and heroines of Scandinavian songs, later adapted in various ways to the use of different countries. After awhile this lost art revived in the Romances of chivalry, and in popular ballads. They describe all the changes in life and society, and are akin to the ballads of the British Isles. In them we find the common expression of the life and feelings of a common race. The same stories often influenced the bards of all countries at different periods. These ballads are all written in the same form and express a certain poetic feeling which is not found in the Epic Age. In all countries they had a refrain, or chorus, which marks the migration of poetry from the Epic to the Lyric form.
"This simple voice of song," to quote a modern author, "travelled onward from mouth to mouth, from heart to heart, the language of the general sorrows, hopes and memories; strange, and yet near to every one, centuries old, yet never growing older, since the human heart, whose history it relates in so many changing images and notes, remains forever the same."
Schlegel says of the Russian Nation:
"Her subjection to the Greek Church was alone sufficient during the Middle Ages, and is in some measure sufficient even in our own time, to keep Russia politically and intellectually at a distance from the rest of the Western world."
Little if any part was taken by the Slavs in the Crusades. They had hardly any of the spirit of chivalry, and their belief, during their period of barbaric heathenism, was not so romantic and ideal as the Gothic.
The heroic prose tales of Russia are older and more popular than her ballads. They are told in the nurseries, and recount the heroic deeds of Vladimir the Great. The ballads are mostly a recital of the feuds between the Poles and the Tartars, not unlike the Border ballads of Scotland.
Their greatest hero is Yermak, who conquered the Mongols, and in the fifteenth century won for the Czars the country that is now called Siberia. Yermak's deeds and praises are sung from one end of Russia to the other, even at the present day; and the poorest peasants usually have a colored print representing him on horseback, nailed to the wall of their cabins.
The popular poetry of the Slavic race, which still survives, is found in its perfection among the Serbians and Dalmatians, while it is almost extinct among the other nations. It is of unknown antiquity, and has been handed down from one century to another.
The Slavs have always been a singing race, and must have been so from Pagan times, as their songs abound with heathen gods and customs, dreams, omens, and a true Eastern fatalism. Love and heroism are the usual themes, and among the Serbians the peculiar relation of sister and brother forms the principal subject of interest.
A Serbian woman who has no brother is considered a fit subject for sympathy. The Serbian poetry is nearly all Epic, and in this particular class of verse no modern nation has been so productive. There is a grand and heroic simplicity in their song, as it recounts their daily life; the hall where the women sit spinning near the fire, the windswept mountain side, where the boys are pasturing their flocks, the village square where youths and maidens dance, the country ripe for the harvest, and the forest through which the traveller journeys, all reecho with song. This Serbian poetry first became generally known in Europe through Goethe and Grimm in Germany, and Bowring and Lytton in England.
The Finnish race reached a high degree of civilization at a very early period. They have always been distinguished by a love of poetry, especially for the elegy, and they abound in tales, legends and proverbs. Until the middle of the twelfth century they had their own independent kings, since then they have been alternately conquered by the Russians and Swedes; but like the Poles, they have preserved a strong national feeling, and have kept their native language. Their greatest literary monument is the Kalevala, an epic poem. Elias Lonnrot, its compiler, wandered from place to place in the remote and isolated country in Finland, lived with the peasants, and took from them their popular songs, then he wrote the Kalevala, which bears a strong resemblance to Hiawatha. Max Muller says that this poem deserves to be classed as the fifth National Epic in the world, and to rank with the Mahabharata and the Nibelungen-lied. The songs are doubtlessly the work of different minds in the earliest ages of the nation.
The Magyars, or Hungarians as they are called, came into Europe from Asia, and first settled between the Don and the Dneiper. They possessed from remote antiquity a national heroic poetry, the favourite subject of which was their migration and conquests under the Seven Leaders. They laid claim to Attila as being of their nation, and many of their most warlike songs recounted his deeds and those of the other Gothic heroes. The Magyars have never taken kindly to foreign influence, and when, in the fifteenth century, Mathias Corvin tried to bring Italian influence to bear on them, the result was a decline in literature, and neglect of the old poems and legends. During the Turkish invasions the last remnants of the national songs and traditions disappeared; and under the Austrian rule the Hungarians have become decidedly Germanized.
Within the past century Kisfalud has sought to restore the national legends of his country, and a new impetus has been given to the restoration and preservation of the Hungarian language and literature.
Gothic poems were sung in the time of Attila; but the Gothic language and monuments have everywhere perished except in Spain, where the Spanish Monarchs are anxious to trace their descent from the Gothic Kings. Attila, Odoascar, Theodoric, and the Amali, with other heroes, Frankish and Burgundian, all appear in these old poems. The German songs that Charlemagne had collected and put in writing are undoubtedly the outcome of these ancient Gothic poems of the first Christian era. Their substance is found in the Nibelungen-lied and the Heldenbuch.
As in the legends of Troy and Iceland, so also in the Nibelungen-lied, the story centres on a young hero glowing with beauty and victory, and possessed of loftiness of character; but who meets with an early and untimely death. Such is Baldur the Beautiful of Iceland, and such, also, are Hector and Achilles of Troy. These songs mark the greatness and the waning of the heroic world In the Nibelungen-lied the final event is a great calamity that is akin to a half historical event of the North. Odin descends to the nether world to consult Hela; but she, like the sphinx of Thebes, will not reply save in an enigma, which enigma is to entail terrible tragedies, and lead to destruction the young hero who is the prey of the gods.
In this we can trace a similarity to the life's history and death
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